February 2021

Arts & Letters

Once upon a time in the north: ‘High Ground’

By Shane Danielsen
Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s foray into Australia’s violent colonial history is a visually spectacular, if overfamiliar, revisionist Western

High Ground, the long-awaited second feature from Stephen Maxwell Johnson (Yolngu Boy), opens with an extraordinary image: a vista shot of Nimbuwarr, a sacred rock in Arnhem Land, from high above, as a red sun declines behind it and insects buzz on the soundtrack like a piece by Alva Noto. The best drone shot in recent Australian cinema (and Christ knows there’s been enough of them), it’s also the only one that actually adds something to the story; mesmerising, almost otherworldly, it functions as a codicil for the narrative that follows. Man’s capacity for evil is vast, it seems to say. But this country is vaster still.

There’s a number of affiliated sensory pleasures to be found here, usually at sequences marking shifts in time or of locale. (A lateral tracking shot following a flock of magpie geese in flight, less than 50 feet above the ground, is equally jaw-dropping.) And the early scenes of a young boy, Gutjuk (played as a child by Guruwuk Mununggurr), daubing his body in white clay and then stalking a wallaby through bushland, have an almost tactile physicality, a steady, overwhelming there-ness – as if every sense were freshly engaged and alert. All in all, it’s a hugely promising first 10 minutes. It’s only when people start talking that the problems begin.

Gutjuk’s father, Ngungki (Wakara Gondarra), and uncle Baywara (Sean Mununggurr) are also out hunting that day, but their quarry is disturbed by Gutjuk, and flees. The father chides the boy gently before Baywara takes him to some nearby rocks; there he gives him his totem – a crocodile – and his dance. Later, back at their camp, they’re surprised by the arrival of two more Indigenous men, on the run after killing a cow at a nearby station, who beg Ngungki for sanctuary. But even as the patriarch agrees to shelter them for a night (“I want no trouble for my family,” he warns), they’re set upon by a posse of white troopers, intent on bringing the fugitives in.

The encounter quickly dissolves into bloody carnage, with two of the company firing indiscriminately at any black body within range, until Travis (Simon Baker), a sniper recently returned from World War One, hurries from his vantage to intervene. Ignoring the protests of his sideman, Eddy (Callan Mulvey), he shoots the errant troopers dead and rescues Gutjuk, by now the sole survivor. He takes the child to a nearby mission, run by Claire (Caren Pistorius) and her brother Braddock (Ryan Corr), to be educated in the ways of the white man’s God.

Twelve years pass. Gutjuk (now played by Jacob Junior Nayinggul) is a young man, dutifully serving tea after Sunday service. Travis, meanwhile, has quit the police and is now working as a bounty hunter – his beard longer, but his longing for atonement no less acute. One day he’s summoned by his old boss, Moran ( Jack Thompson), who brings some unexpected news: Baywara, it turns out, survived the attack at the watering hole, and has recently re-emerged as a warrior-bandit, leading a pack of outlaws known as The Wild Mob. The gang have wreaked havoc across the region, burning houses and routing livestock. And recently they did something more serious still. They murdered a white woman.

As any fan of the Western knows, setting homesteads ablaze is one thing, but an attack on the womenfolk represents the proverbial line in the sand. Apart from the severity of the individual assault, it serves both as a metaphor – violating the purity and promise of the conquered new land – and as a matter of larger practical concern, since it implies the ever-present if rarely uttered threat of miscegenation, the affront no self-respecting white supremacist can ignore. Despite his misgivings, Travis agrees to bring Baywara in, and after some rough persuasion from Eddy, Gutjuk accompanies them as a tracker, in the hope that his presence might somehow protect his uncle. (“Will you keep him safe?” he asks Travis. “I’ll do my best,” is the not-terribly-reassuring answer.)

In truth, of course, Gutjuk is bait. And his uneasy relationship with Travis, and Eddy’s mounting mistrust of the latter’s allegiances, provides the engine of the drama that unfolds.

Maxwell Johnson has apparently spent much of the 20 years since his debut feature living and working on Yolngu land, learning its people’s customs and earning their trust. (One of his chief collaborators, Witiyana Marika, founding member of Yothu Yindi and ceremonial leader of the Rirratjingu clan, devised the story along with him and credited screenwriter Chris Anastassiades, and also co-stars as tribal elder Dharrpa. His face-off with Jack Thompson, as the colonised demand justice from the representative of their occupier, is quietly authoritative.) And for the most part, the director handles the action well. The massacre at the watering hole, in particular, is staged, shot and edited with real skill; its violence is abrupt, terrifyingly random, and intensely upsetting, exactly as it should be.

But there are problems with the dialogue; no one sounds for a moment like they’re in 1919 – or even 1931. (“The fuck’s wrong with you?” one character demands – a locution I’m pretty sure postdates Scorsese.) Nor, after the time-jump, does anyone look like they’ve aged a day – certainly not Claire, who’s hardly changed in the intervening decade.

And, as with Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, everyone here’s a little too – pun only partially intended – black and white. Each character is assigned one defining characteristic: Claire is Selfless, Eddy is Evil. Braddock, the priest, is Weak. The whitefellas are mostly bad, and the blackfellas generally noble. Apart from seeming faintly condescending, it’s thin writing – especially when you compare it to the classic Westerns that Maxwell Johnson is clearly hoping to emulate. John Wayne’s character in Howard Hawks’ Red River is a bastard as thorough and unrepentant as any settler here. But he’s also given exculpatory moments, flashes of compassion and introspection, and even joy, that hint at a detailed and contradictory inner life; they enrich his performance and complicate our sympathies. Likewise Jimmy Stewart’s anti-hero in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur. (And this is before we get to the high-water mark of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, films almost novelistic in the richness of their characterisations.)

For all those references, however, the real inspiration here is John Ford. The sensitive treatment of oppression owes much to 1948’s Fort Apache, while the uneasy truce between warring cultures recalls 1961’s Two Rode Together – and Kakadu National Park is at least as visually spectacular as Ford’s beloved Monument Valley. Nothing in this film, admittedly, approaches the unresolved moral ambiguities of The Searchers, or the sophisticated dialectics of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but this is not to belittle Maxwell Johnson’s achievement: Ford is one of the greatest film directors to ever live, his apparent simplicity of style concealing both a piercing psychological insight and a refined aesthetic sensibility.

Maxwell Johnson takes care to split the action between the Indigenous characters and the whites, giving more or less equal time to each side. He’s trying, patiently and sincerely, to represent what he believes to be a moment of profound historical fracture – “the missed opportunity between two cultures”, as he called it in one interview. Nevertheless, the framework feels overfamiliar, right down to Travis’s redemption arc, and the action ultimately devolves into a morality-play string of encounters that inevitably end in violence.

This may, of course, be the point. The history of colonisation in Australia is, after all, nothing if not predictable in its brutality, one in which more or less the same actions were repeated, with more or less the same outcomes, time and time again. So I’m prepared to accept that it’s the structure, rather than the story, that might be driving the narrative here.

Of the cast, Simon Baker is solid in an underwritten role. Callan Mulvey is not – though in his defence he has even less to work with. Unfortunately, if perhaps unsurprisingly, the white-hot potency Jack Thompson displayed in films like Petersen and Sunday Too Far Away has dulled with time to a mellow, almost avuncular glow; like a lot of old men (and he’s 80 now, hard as that is to believe), he seems almost hollowed-out here. A ghost of himself.

The real standout is Jacob Junior Nayinggul, who in his screen debut not only holds his own against the more established actors but also exhibits enough charisma to transcend the limitations of his role. He’s handsome as well as compelling; he holds the screen effortlessly. A bright future beckons.

Westerns are inherently political movies because they’re about imposing a template of order upon apparent chaos. The establishment of a state, in these tales, is not an abstract or academic concern; it requires direct physical action in order to claim territory, enact laws, and create and sustain an economy. The so-called revisionist Western, popular in the 1970s and of which High Ground is a latter-day example, is about the same thing, only viewed from the other end of the rifle. In subverting racial and sexual archetypes, they reveal the price paid by those previously consigned to the margins of the story, or excluded altogether from its telling.

It need not be overstated; sometimes a single directorial choice is sufficient. Told in flashback, Baywara’s raid on a homestead occurs at night; the slaughter of Gutjuk’s people, by contrast, takes place in broad daylight. And that one distinction speaks more eloquently about the history of white settlement here – and who has power and who has not – than any speech or story ever could.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Still from High Ground

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